The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin’s assault also targets Ukraine’s history

It is not only the country that faces erasure

Russian shelling severely damaged the regional headquarters of the Security Service of Ukraine. (State Emergency Service Of Ukraine/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Over the past few weeks, the Russian military has conducted a multipronged assault against Ukraine, striking military targets, airports and hospitals and leveling towns and apartment buildings across the country.

Vladimir Putin precipitated his invasion of Ukraine with a fiery speech televised to the Russian population, during which he contested the very existence of Ukraine and charged that the state was an artificial creation. Such a claim, of course, rewrites history, something that Putin has done repeatedly when explaining the origins of World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Now the stakes are even higher. With Russian forces shelling Ukraine’s major cities and the threat of drawn-out urban warfare looming on the horizon, the war is having dire consequences for the Ukrainian people. A less immediate but important consequence of the war is that the invasion may also destroy historical archives that will limit what historians and others can learn about Ukraine’s past.

On Feb. 27 in Chernihiv oblast, Russian shelling severely damaged the regional headquarters of the Security Service of Ukraine, or Sluzhba Bezpeky Ukrainy (SBU), which houses important archival materials including documentation of Nazi atrocities in Ukraine. If Putin succeeds in destroying or removing critical records like those in the SBU archive, it could erase Ukrainians’ distinct experiences and buttress Putin’s view of history, in which, among many other things, he sees Ukrainians and Russians as one people.

The destruction of books, documents and art is a centuries-old practice of aggressors to control or annihilate the cultural legacy of their victims. In 391 A.D., Roman Emperor Theodosius I outlawed all religions other than Christianity. As part of this decree, he ordered the leveling of the pagan Temple of Serapis and the elimination of the records housed within. These records had survived the Library of Alexandria’s first fire, but he viewed their continued existence as “the cause of evils.”

More recently, during the Second World War, the Nazis destroyed records as well as religious and historic artifacts as part of their genocidal campaign. In addition to the decimation of sacred texts, the Nazis burned 70 percent of Jewish books in Poland and looted many more, sending them back to Germany. The Nazis then used these stolen books to support their allegedly objective, scientific research into the “Jewish Question,” perverting the books’ contents to legitimize their racial theories.

Destroying or stealing books and files is not the only way to control what people can learn about the past, of course. The unnecessary classification or concealment of documents can also create gaps in the record and silence the voices of those with divergent views. Indeed, that is why the Soviet Union tightly controlled access to archives, banning public access. Independent historians who endeavored to fill in the “blank spots” of Soviet history had to turn to alternative sources and self-publish their findings. Their pursuit of truth put them in danger of censorship and repression.

In a departure from the Soviet government that he used to serve, Boris Yeltsin opened the Central Party Archive along with classified Soviet files in other state archives in 1991 when he became president of the newly independent Russian Federation. This allowed historians and the general public to learn more about the crimes of the Soviet government while distancing the Russian Federation and the states of the former Soviet Union from the old regime. In opening the archives, Yeltsin showed his support for the democratic value of access to information and set the precedent for his successors to do the same.

However, in his more than two decades in power, Putin has made minimal effort to open important Soviet archives. Though researchers at the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History (RGANI) and the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense in Podolsk now have access to some previously classified collections, the Presidential Archive of the Russian Federation, the former KGB central archive and the foreign intelligence service archive remain closed.

Why? Because by blocking historians from conducting archival research and punishing anyone who deviates from his perverse view of the past, Putin assumes greater control. To ensure adherence to his interpretation of global conflict, on May 5, 2014, Putin signed a law that would result in up to a five-year prison sentence to anyone who defames and distorts the Soviet Union’s role in World War II.

It is not merely petulance: Putin uses historical myths to undergird his regime. World War II plays a key role in Russia’s ideological offensive and serves to legitimize Russia’s great-power aspiration. Russian revanchism also distracts from growing socio-economic problems at home.

On Dec. 28, Putin went one step further in his assault on history when Moscow’s Supreme Court ordered the closure of Memorial International, Russia’s oldest civil rights group, which studies Soviet political repressions and crimes. In his remarks to the court, prosecutor Alexei Zhafyarov charged the organization with creating “a false image of the U.S.S.R. as a terrorist state by speculating on the topic of political repression in the 20th century.” After this ruling, historians writing about Soviet atrocities have become persona non grata in Putin’s Russia.

Any criticism of powerful actors — even those in the past — is seen as a challenge to Putin’s own power. As a result, historians seeking to retain access to Russia’s archives may have to modulate their findings if they run counter to Putin’s narrative or accept that they may no longer be able to conduct research in Russia.

The Ukrainian government has directly challenged Putin’s war on history. In an effort to promote transparency, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law in April 2015 throwing open the doors of the country’s Soviet-era political police archives to researchers around the world. Until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, researchers at the Haluzevyi derzhavnyi arkhiv Sluzhba Bezpeky Ukrainy housed in the SBU headquarters in Kyiv, had access to records of criminal tribunals and interrogations as well as the personnel files of the Soviet political police officers working in Ukraine. This is just one of the many critical archives that Putin could destroy to pervert understandings of the past and history itself.

It is not only Ukraine that faces erasure — it is also Ukraine’s history. The very existence of archives like the SBU poses a direct threat to Putin. It is impossible to imagine a scenario in which he would allow these crucial files to remain in Ukraine. As the world realizes that Putin’s objectives are grandiose, it becomes clearer that he will not be satisfied only by “demilitarizing” Ukraine. He will also seek to erase Ukraine’s separate and distinct history from the archival record.